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AnalysisTurning potential allies into the most bitter of opponents

Avigdor Liberman’s moves against the ultra-Orthodox have the coalition seething

Cuts to daycare subsidies spark outrage among Haredi communities, vows of revenge from their parties; it’s not clear move was fully coordinated with other coalition members

Shalom Yerushalmi

Shalom Yerushalmi is the political analyst for Zman Israel, The Times of Israel’s Hebrew current affairs website

Avigdor Liberman attends a Channel 13 news conference in Jerusalem on June 3, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Avigdor Liberman attends a Channel 13 news conference in Jerusalem on June 3, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman’s move to slash daycare subsidies for some ultra-Orthodox has his partners in the shaky coalition worried that his actions could torpedo all the progress they have made.

Liberman’s decision to dramatically target the ultra-Orthodox where it hurts them the most, just three weeks after the government’s formation and as it faces ongoing strains in getting legislation passed, upset many in the coalition.

A senior minister told Zman Yisrael, The Times of Israel’s Hebrew-language sister-site, on Thursday: “I don’t understand Liberman. We promised not to harm the ultra-Orthodox. Both Bennett and Lapid repeated it. What is he doing? Destroying everything, even the chance that they may enter the coalition.”

“Today it seems far off,” the minister added, “but if the budget passes and the government stabilizes, it will be possible to talk to the ultra-Orthodox one day. They are the only segment in the opposition that can drop out.”

The current coalition spans eight parties from the right, center, left and Arab sector and commands a razor-thin majority in the Knesset.

Many of its members have hoped that the ultra-Orthodox parties, who are reliant on large-scale state subsidies for their communities, could be tempted to join the coalition to secure access to funds.

But on Wednesday, Liberman announced that from the coming school year yeshiva students that do not work would not be eligible for subsidized supervised daycare for their children up to the age of three. The decision caused outrage in the ultra-Orthodox community and saw waves of anger directed toward Liberman.

Liberman’s decision hits some 20,000 ultra-Orthodox families; the ultra-Orthodox claim that the move will ultimately cost the state more money.

Illustrative: Students in a Jerusalem yeshiva, August 16, 2018. (Aharon Krohn/Flash90)

If an ultra-Orthodox woman who works instead of her husband, while he studies in a yeshiva, is now compelled to stay at home and take care of the small children, the state will wind up paying these families higher unemployment benefits than the subsidies, they argue.

Liberman’s associates claim that he is actually fighting the black market economy, and that many of the ultra-Orthodox actually do work, but off the books, and do not study in the yeshiva full-time. Alternatively, they say, the men could help out with the daycare.

Regardless, the reactions were stark.

“The Bennett-Liberman government is starving the children of Israel,” read leaflets distributed by Shas. The Orthodox newspaper Hamodia, affiliated with United Torah Judaism MK Yaakov Litzman, branded Liberman on its front page “the finance minister of the malice and destruction government.”

In UTJ MK Meir Porush’s Hamashber paper, a large red headline read: “The finance minister’s campaign against the ultra-Orthodox public continues.” Another ultra-Orthodox paper, Shaharit, reported on Liberman’s “hateful decrees.”

Some caricatures were still more provocative. In one, in the Yated Ne’eman newspaper, Liberman is seen wheeling ultra-Orthodox toddlers in a wheelbarrow to a landfill — in a reference to previous remarks by Liberman against the ultra-Orthodox — and Bennett is seen looking at him, saying “I will protect the government from any harm to the ultra-Orthodox.”

In a second cartoon, Liberman is seen pulling a loaf of bread from a hungry ultra-Orthodox child, and an article reads, “Child assaulter, Moldovan Liberman strikes again.” Liberman had previously been convicted of assaulting a 12-year-old boy in 1999 who allegedly harmed his son.

The ultra-Orthodox will now seek revenge at every possible corner, including targeting Liberman’s allies.

On Thursday, Porush, Litzman and United Torah Judaism leader MK Moshe Gafni vowed to ensure that Jerusalem Mayor Moshe Lion will not be re-elected when his term ends in two and a half years, because he is close to Liberman. Lion would not have been elected without the support of the ultra-Orthodox, but now they intend to find another candidate in his place.

Liberman, meanwhile, is working in his own interest. His voters support the latest move; he has long campaigned for a more equitable distribution of the burden in Israel, with promises to try and get the ultra-Orthodox to pay taxes and serve in the military.

But the government and the coalition are paying a price. The ultra-Orthodox have emerged in these weeks as the most determined opposition force in the Knesset, and now Liberman is giving them more energy, ahead of upcoming political battles in the Knesset.

According to political sources, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett was not happy with Liberman’s announcement, and it is unclear whether it was coordinated with him. Coalition chair and Yamina MK Idit Silman spoke out against the decision. Liberman’s associates, however, claim that he is proceeding according to an orderly plan drawn up by the professional bodies in the Finance Ministry, and that all this was known to Bennett.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett leads the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on July 4, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Criticism of Liberman also came from the left-wing of the coalition. Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz of Meretz and  Labor’s Emily Moati and Naama Lazimi, as well as Meretz’s Gaby Lasky, attacked the decision to end the subsidy.

MK Mossi Raz (Meretz) told Zman Yisrael: “Liberman encourages the ultra-Orthodox to go to work and that’s good, but you can’t cut everything for them in this way, and harm children.”

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